Monday, January 23, 2017

Cille Chrìosd - Baile-na-Cille

The photo is of the burial ground of St Christopher’s at Baile-na-Cille on Lewis. The dedication to St Christopher is odd for a Hebridean island, so it's more than likely that the Christopher dedication is a corruption of the Gaelic name Cille Chriosd (Christ's Church). This old burial ground was once the site of a chapel, and the centre of an area of sanctuary.

Cille Chriosd - Suainabhal and Uig Lodge in the distance
The photo was taken from the hillside north of the burial ground and near the site of a blackhouse that, local tradition says, was the birthplace of Coinneach Odhar (the Brahan Seer). There are three interesting stories about Cille Chriosd that I've come across over the years.

The first one is told in Bill Lawson's Lewis: The West Coast in History and Legend. The Brahan Seer's mother was spinning wool late one evening near Cille Chriosd when she saw several graves open up, and spitits rise from them and fly away. Later she saw all but one of them return to their graves. To block the last ghost from returning she laid her distaff across the grave. The ghost turned out to be the daughter of the king of Norway, and she pleaded with the Seer's mother to remove the staff. In return for removing it the ghost told her where she could find a stone of vision. The Seer's mother told her son where to find the stone, and Coinneach went on to make many prophecies.

The second story is from Donald MacDonald's Tales and Traditions of the Lewis, and associates the burial ground with the builders of stone circles.

The conical mound wherein are buried the bodies of many Uig people holds a mysterious and sacred association still for those who come near it. For at least a thousand years they have gazed with reverential awe at this site, and before that there was a pagan temple. There is a legend that the mound was first built up by one called Elidhean, who carried the soil (with panniers) on two white horses, from a hill in the vicinity which still bears his name, “Cnoc Elidhean”. Some people say that the builders were the same Mediterranean incomers who built another conical mound like it on Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, and set up the standing stones which rouse in us feelings of awe and wonder.

The third tale is one of revenge carried out on the threshold of the sanctuary of Cille Chriosd. It is told in W C Mackenzie’s book The Western Isles, in a chapter called The Adventures of John Roy Macaulay. It recounts how the sons of MacLeod of Pabbay Mor murdered the family of John Roy Macaulay, following a dispute over the ownership of a cow. Thirteen-year-old John Roy was away at the time, living with his foster-father. MacLeod of Lewis, not happy with the Pabbay MacLeods, ordered that they take John Roy into their custody with a promise to keep him safe.

But his period of safekeeping was not to last long. On a snowy day the MacLeods took him on a hunting trip, and at Tota Choinnich, an old shelter south of Kinlochresort, they tied him to rocks in the snow and left him to the elements.
Ruin of Tota Choinnich
John Roy’s foster-father had a premonition something was wrong and was able to rescue him. Several years later John Roy had his revenge, when he pursued the eldest son of MacLeod of Pabay to the shores of Uig Bay, killing him just before he could reach the sanctuary of Cille Chriosd.

I have spent many nights just a stones throw from the burial ground of Cille Chriosd, for right next to it is the Balnacille Guest House, one of the best in the islands. Fortunately I never saw any spirits rising from the graves, but I did see several amazing sunsets. For more on Cille Chrìosd take a look at this Uig Historical Society page.

Cille Chriosd and Bailenacille Guest House

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Eilean Maree

I first learned of Eilean Maree, a small island in Loch Maree, when I read T Ratcliffe Barnett's Autumns in Skye, Ross and Sutherland (1930). In it is a chapter entitled A Dream of Isle Maree, which describes the author's visit to the island in 1926.  It is a wonderful story, and gives much of the history of this tiny island.

Barnett also mentions the story about bull sacrifices that were once carried out on the island. These were done as late as the 17th century, so pagan practices seem to have persisted there long after St Maelrubha established a cell on the island around the year 700.  (You can read about the sacrificing of bulls in this PSAS report from 1860.)

Eilean Maree
St Maelrubha, born in Ireland in 642AD, left for Scotland in 671, and founded the monastery of Applecross in 673. Between then, and when he died in 722, he was one busy monk; for there are places and church sites dedicated to him all over the isles and the mainland. And there is some thought that many of the 'mor/mory' place names, sometimes translated as references to Mary, may refer to Maelrubha. Two examples being Tobermory on Mull, and Eileanan Mòra (a Gaelic name for the Shiants).

Tombstones on Eilean Maree

Ancient cross-stones on Eilean Maree
There is little left of St Maelrubha's settlement on Eilean Maree; mainly an ancient, moss-cloaked oval stone wall, some 120 feet in its longest diameter, that surrounds the burial ground where Maelrubha's cell once stood; an enclosure similar in size to the cashels I wrote of last time.

The dark burial ground of Eilean Maree
The holy well on the island became a place of pilgrimage for those seeking a cure to insanity, and the pilgrims would leave coins at the well, and in a nearby oak, as offerings. Here is one description of the 'cure' ritual:

The patient is brought into the sacred island, is made to kneel before the altar, where his attendants leave an offering in money; he is then brought to the well, and sips some of the holy water. A second offering is made; that done, he is thrice dipped into the lake; and the same operation is repeated every day for several weeks.

Sounds like quite a good revenue stream in its day. The holy well has since dried up, and the oak has died. But thousands of coins can still be seen lying on the ground, atop stumps, and embedded in dead bits of the tree.


When Queen Victoria visited the island in 1877 she inserted a gold sovereign (pound coin) in the tree. (A local story says the boatman went back to get it.) I looked at many of the coins; most were corroded, and none looked like gold. In amongst all the old coins were many modern ones, as the island is a popular stop-off for kayakers. I did insert a ten pence of my own to ward off insanity. (It didn't work - I'm still crazy about islands.)


In the next photo you can see some of the enclosure's surrounding wall; covered with thick moss, the wall looked like a living thing.


The old tombstones look eerie, sprouting up through the moss in the dark and ever present shade of tall oak and holly trees.


I was taken to Eilean Maree in 2014 by the owner of the Loch Maree Hotel. On the way back he handed me a fishing pole, and we trolled around for a while. Although I didn't catch anything, it had been an amazing day. You can find more about the historic island of Eilean Maree on this Highland Council page.

Returning from the island to the Loch Maree Hotel

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Cashels of the Hebrides

Monastic Cashels are interesting structures. They are small, round or oval enclosures, 120 to 200 feet in diameter. Inside is usually a church and several small cells where the monks lived. Some even had mills and bathhouses.

My interest in Celtic Christian Cashels began during my first visit to the west of Ireland in 1988. I tried to get out to see the cashel on the tiny island of Inishmurray, which lies off the coast 12 miles northwest of Sligo. But I was unable to find a boatman to take me. I tried again in 2013. It was easy enough to find a boatman that time, but the weather was atrocious and he could not sail out. I do plan to try again someday, as it looks like an amazing place.

Inishmurray Cashel
Not all cashels are as hard to get to as Inishmurray. There are five that I know of in the Hebrides, but even those require a bit of effort to get to. The easiest to see, Cladh a' Bhearnaig, requires getting yourself to Kerrera, and then making a two mile hike to the north end of the island. 

Cladh a' Bhearnaig
Cladh a’ Bheàrnaig is a nearly circular enclosure split in thirds by low walls. Inside sit the remains of several buildings; one that looks like a beehive cell, and two that are rectangular structures with walls three feet thick. Even though I visited the site in early spring, when the bracken was just starting to sprout, it was difficult to examine the structures under all the vegetation. If you're ever in Oban for a day, and want to get away from the tourists, there's no better way than paying a visit to Kerrera, and making the hike to its north end to see Cladh a' Bhearniag. 

Cladh a' Bhearnaig
The second Scottish cashel of interest is Sgoor nam Ban Naoimh on Canna. It is only reachable by a precarious sheep track that traverses down the cliffs. (The track starts at NG 2328 0460.) Inside the cashel walls you'll find an amazing set of ruins; beehive cells, an oratory, a chapel, and what may have been a bathhouse. I was able to descend the path down to the cashel in 2002, but when I tried again in 2016 it was so undermined by rabbit warrens that it did not look safe to use. Unless you are with a group, and roped up, I would not recommend using the path.

Start of the eroded path down to the cashel
Sgorr nam Ban-naomha
The third Scottish cashel that I'm aware of is on Nave Island off the north tip of Islay. Aside from an expensive day charter, the only way to visit it (that I know of) is as part of a southern Hebrides cruise such as those offered by Northern Light Cruising Company or Hebrides Cruises.

Nave Island - Cashel wall marked with arrows
I was fortunate to have landed on Nave Island in 2016 (see the June 8th post). It's most striking feature is its chapel with a chimney. The chapel dates to the 13th century, and was built on the site of the cashel's original church. The chimney was added in the 1700s when they processed kelp here. Cross-fragments found on the site date to the time of St Columba, so the monastery here may have been founded at the same time as the one on Iona, which is just 30 miles to the north. See this CANMORE page for more on the Nave Island monastery.

Remnants of the circular enclosure wall can be seen in the foreground

Inside Nave Chapel
The most visited of all the Scottish cashels is on the island of Eileach an Naoimh of the Garvellachs. Unfortunately, there's not much, if anything, left of its enclosing wall, as it was pillaged to build several structures after the site ceased to be a monastery. The Historic Scotland reader-board at the site has an evocative drawing showing what they think the original enclosure looked like.

Historic Scotland display on Eileach an Naoimh

Chapel at upper right, once within the cashel enclosure
The penultimate Scottish cashel, and the hardest to reach, is on far off North Rona. The cashel's enclosing circular wall, 120 feet in diameter, still survives, albeit cloaked in thick grass and moss.

North Rona Cashel
Standing inside the enclosure is St Ronan's Chapel and cell. The rest of the space is filled with ancient graves. The only legible tombstone, and barely legible at that, is the memorial to Murdo Mackay and Malcolm MacDonald, who died in 1885 (see chapter 29 of Book 2, and the final photo below).

North Rona Cashel - St Ronan's cell and chapel to the left

The remains of the cashel wall can be seen behind St Ronan's Church
It's intriguing to speculate what life was like in these cashels 15 centuries ago; the monks going about their everyday tasks, interrupted every now and then by raiding Ragnars. Iona was pillaged several times, so it's probable that Nave Island, Canna, North Rona, and Eileach an Naoimh suffered similar fates. If you want a day to remember, make a solitary wander to one of these sites. While there, let your thoughts drift to times long past, and try to sense the lingering presence of all the souls who once toiled, and found joy, in a life of contemplation and work.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Shieling on the Moor

Sometimes you luck out, and end up being blessed with magnificent weather during a hike that you've planned to do for a year. That happened to me last August while wandering across the moorland of southwest Lewis. It was the perfect hiking weather; sunny skies, not too hot, and just enough wind to keep the midges away. One of the surprises of that walk on that picture-perfect day was a beautiful solitary shieling I came across near Loch na Craobhaig.



The OS map does not name this place; the only hint of its existence a little square on the map at NB 0657 2103. I had not planned on visiting this particular spot, but while looking at the beehive cell ruins at Fidigidh Iochdrach I noticed a bump on the horizon a few hundred metres to the southeast. I am so glad I decided to walk over to see it; for out in the middle of nowhere, under a azure sky dotted with billowy clouds, stood a beautiful, solitary shieling, that appeared to be an ancient beehive cell modified into a rectangular shelter.


The interior still retained much of the beehive's circular wall-space, including a dozen nooks for storing cheese and milk.


I was stunned by the beauty of this spot, with its amazing view over the sparkling blue waters of Loch na Craobhaig to the distant Harris hills. It would be amazing to have seen this place when it was in use 150 years ago.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Cara's Chapel of St Fionnlugh

My favorite island souvenirs are the little history books about an island that I find on the island. One of these was The Antiquities of Gigha, by the Rev. RSG Anderson. The book has been very popular. Originally published in 1936, a second edition came out three years later. The copy I bought on Gigha in 1992 is a reprint published in 1978.


I had come to Gigha back then to see if I could find someone to take me to the tiny isle of Cara, which lies a half-mile off the south tip of Gigha. I mainly wanted to sit in Cara's famous Brownie's Chair, but Anderson's little history book also led me to spend some time taking a close look at another of Cara's attractions: the chapel of St Fionnlugh; also refereed to in a 17th century document as Cella Sanctissimae Trinitas - the Cell of the Holy Trinity.

The Chapel
The 6th century St Fionnlugh (the fair-haired hero), that the Cara chapel is dedicated to, was associated with a monastery on Eilean Mor, an island in Loch Finnlagan, 20 miles to the northwest on Islay. Saint Fionnlugh was a contemporary of St Columba, and is said to have saved Columba from a spear-wielding assassin on the island of Hinba. Fionnlugh is also known as the Hermit Saint of Islay, and so perhaps when he needed a break from the hustle and bustle of Islay he escaped for a little contemplative R&R on Cara.

Cara House and the Chapel seen from the south
In the 18th century the chapel was used as a kitchen for Cara House, which is only 20 feet away. The house itself dates to the 1730s, and many of the missing stones from the chapel probably form some of the substance of the house.

Cara House and the Chapel seen from the north
Cara is a beautiful name for an island. But it may not have a beautiful derivation. Alasdair Alpin Macgregor, in his Skye and the Inner Hebrides, says the name means corpse, and its profile seen from the mainland does resemble a prone body. Along those lines, TS Muir, writing in 1885, says the locals called it Dead Man Island. But I prefer a different derivation, one I found in a book on place names that says Cara means 'Dear One'. Another similar definition comes from Dwelly's Gaelic Dictonary, which lists Càra as a Gaelic word for friend. 

If you ever get the chance to go to Cara take it. I found it to be, like its name, a friendly island that likes to be visited.

Cara (looking slightly corpse-ish) seen from Gigha

The boatman awaits - Gigha seen from Cara

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Walk to the Ardveg

The last issue of Scottish Islands Explorer (Nov/Dec 2016) included an abridged article on a walk in August of 2016 from Morsgail to the Ardveg in search of beehive cells and old shielings. For space considerations the article was cut down to 800 words. The full length article, along with several photos not used in the magazine, can now be found on the Ardveg Walk tab.

Joe of the Ardveg

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Soay of Our Forefathers

I love memoirs written by people that grew up on remote Hebridean islands. One good example is Angus Duncan's Memories of Scarp. Another one I recently re-read is Laurance Reed's The Soay of our Forefathers. I first read it in 2006, and during a cruise on the sailboat Zuza in 2008 I had the unexpected pleasure of spending a few hours on Soay. 


Soay was Macleod territory for centuries. But the Macleods left the island in the 1700s. It was resettled in the 1800s, and by 1851 over 150 people called it home. The population gradually declined after that. Gavin Maxwell bought Soay in 1944 where he established his basking shark-oil factory. Maxwell wrote about his shark hunting business in Harpoon at a Venture (1952)Also working the sharks with Maxwell was Tex Geddes, who wrote his own book, Hebridean Sharker, in 1960.


In 1953 most of the population, some 27 people, left the island to live and work in the Craignure area on Mull. Only one family remained: the Geddes, who eventually acquired the island in 1963, and lived in the old Mission Hall (built 1890). They had to sell the island shortly after that, but managed to re-acquire their property on Soay in 1993.

Mission Hall (1890), later the home of Tex Geddes & family
The only full-time residents of Soay these days (that I am aware of) are the Davies, who live in a beautiful house called Ceann a Stigh at the head of Camus nan Gall (Stranger's Bay on the east side of Soay). You can visit Soay on a day trip with Skye Boat Trips, and if you are lucky the skipper will be Oliver Davies of Soay. I was fortunate to meet Oliver on Muck last May (they also do trips to the Small Isles). What follows are a few photos of a beautiful sunny day spent on Soay in 2008. I hope to return someday.

Zuza (and a RIB from Skye) in Soay's Bagh Clann Neill

Ruins of the Shark Factory

Debris filled ruin of the shark-oil factory

Shark factory overlooking Soay harbour

Shark factory building - Fish curing station on ground floor and accommodation for fishermen on upper floor.

Site of the radio-telephone exchange

Phone box (Post Office behind it).
Below is a photo of the school built in 1878 (it was in use until 1950). Some point after that it re-opened, for when Hamish Haswell Smith wrote about Soay in his epic The Scottish Islands it was in use. But when I visited Soay in 2008 it was boarded up.

Boarded up schoolhouse (built 1878, photo 2008)


Ruin on Soay - Skye Cullins in the distance

Camas nan Gall